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The idea for this book occurred when I was researching material for my previous book, Hell from the Heavens, the story of the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724). That ship, which battled twenty-two kamikazes off Okinawa in April 1945, often operated in conjunction with other destroyers, and I wondered if there might be a squadron whose exploits offered an equally compelling tale. When my agent, Jim Hornfischer, mentioned the O'Bannon, I examined the squadron of which she was a part and found that Destroyer Squadron 21 more than fit the bill. Not only was the unit the most decorated destroyer squadron of the war, but the ships' feats from 1942 to war's end, where they were involved in the Solomon Islands, the Gilberts and Marshalls, New Guinea, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Borneo, Okinawa, and the Japanese Home Islands, presented a panorama of naval conflict in the Pacific. As I dug deeper into the unit's accomplishments, I discovered dramatic surface engagements, encounters with aircraft and submarines, shore bombardments, convoy escorting, and antisubmarine patrols.
Mostly I unearthed examples of individuals reacting under the crucible of war, for the book is the story of people rather than of a unit. Inspiring leaders guided crews and ships through treacherous combat, daring sea rescues, and antiaircraft duels with kamikazes. Young sailors shook off the civilian world and blended into top-notch crews, seamen and machinist's mates ignored their anxieties to perform under fire, and a gridiron hero offered a modern version of Robinson Crusoe in battling the Japanese while stranded on an island. Men managed fears and missed loved ones. They performed their duties during moments of mind-numbing boredom and of intense action, during those dangerous nights rushing up the Slot to meet the Tokyo Express and while operating off Okinawa and its kamikaze-filled skies. They exhibited every emotion, from joy and laughter to terror and fear. And the squadron officers and crews repeatedly demonstrated heroism under fire, whether the opposition came from a Japanese warship, artillery battery, aircraft, or submarine. In telling the story of Destroyer Squadron 21, I am presenting the naval side of the Pacific war.
I have many people to thank. I received superb help from Destroyer Squadron 21 survivors—Russell Bramble, Warren Gabelman, Donald Holmes, John O'Neill, Willy Rhyne, James Setter, Douglas Starr, and Robert Whisler—who during interviews and other correspondence helped me to better understand what war on the waters was like. Dow Ransom Jr. graciously allowed me to digitize the fascinating diary kept by his father, a ship's physician aboard one of the destroyers. Thomas Chesnutt opened up the diary he kept aboard another destroyer and was most willing to answer the many queries I sent his way. Martin Johnson's interviews, combined with the compelling wartime letters he made available, proved invaluable. Fortunately, I was able to explore the vast amount of material gathered by the late Dave McComb of the Destroyer History Foundation and presented on his website, which his widow, Meredith, gave me permission to use.
With his editorial comments, Bob Pigeon at Da Capo Press expertly shepherded the manuscript into final form, and he and his team, including publicist Lissa Warren and others, developed the book's jacket and touted the book's attractions. Jeffrey Ward's skilled maps complemented the text. My writing mentor, naval biographer Thomas Buell, and my history adviser at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Bernard Norling, profoundly influenced me with their advice. Although neither is now with us, their kind words and wise counsel remain with me each day. The support and advice of my extraordinary agent, Jim Hornfischer, helped me attain a dream that otherwise might not have been realized.
I have been blessed with the support of a nurturing family. My older brother, Tom, who served so nobly as a naval aviator during the Vietnam conflict, offers encouragement and exhibits pride in what I do. The memories of my parents, Tom and Grace, and of my younger brother, Fred, prod me to give my utmost. My daughters, Amy, Julie, and Karen, put a smile on my face with their unquestioned love and support for what I do, and make me proud of the people they have become. My four grandchildren, Matthew, Megan, Emma, and Kaitlyn, keep me young at heart with their vibrant personalities and amazing stream of achievements, and help me to remember that my main duty as an author is to make certain that the deeds of a past generation are not forgotten by those that follow. My invaluable companion of more than two decades, Terri Faitel, a marvelous mathematics teacher, scrutinized my manuscript to dig out errors and to make certain the text made sense. I rely on her more than she may realize.
John F. Wukovits
June 30, 2016
ORIGINS OF A SQUADRON
Admiral William F. Halsey had not been this satisfied since before the war. As he looked across the waters of Tokyo Bay on August 29, 1945, from the bridge of his flagship, USS Missouri—the battleship nicknamed the "Mighty Mo"—a conglomeration of battleships and cruisers steamed behind in a long line stretching to the horizon. Those ships, and others like them, had outslugged the Japanese in surface actions and pounded their installations in landings from the Solomon Islands to Okinawa. Farther out at sea, the formidable fast carrier task forces and their swarms of aircraft that dominated the naval war in the western Pacific in 1944–1945 guarded against surprise kamikaze attacks. The United States had won a long, grueling war, largely due to those ships and other weapons sent to the front lines through an uninterrupted pipeline connecting the American military to home-front factories and shipyards.
As one of the two top naval commanders in the Pacific, Halsey played a prominent part in the victory, gaining accolades and winning battles from the first day of war to the last. He became the nation's darling for his audacious actions, and for four years he looked forward to the moment he would enter the bay, promising along the way to ride Emperor Hirohito's famous white horse through the streets of Tokyo. Halsey described the entry into Tokyo Bay as "the supreme moment of my career," and said, "Every man jack among us was looking toward one moment, the moment we would anchor in Tokyo Bay."1
Halsey might justifiably have placed his Missouri in the first spot, giving the battleship the honor of taking the victorious United States Fleet into Tokyo Bay as conquering heroes come to lay claim on a defeated foe. He instead handed that recognition to a trio of destroyers, O'Bannon (DD-450), Nicholas (DD-449), and Taylor (DD-468), smaller vessels dwarfed in size by "Mighty Mo," which followed them in line. Halsey's love of destroyers, the dashing ships whose speed and offensive punch matched his aggressive personality, had started early in his career. He considered himself a destroyerman even when he rose to higher command, for those ships that sliced low through the water, with the wind slapping his face and the sea salt coating his lips, were in his DNA. The crews of 330 officers and enlisted forged a tight unit, something that the Missouri and her crew of 2,700 could not hope to achieve. They were men who leaned on one another when the guns boomed and drank together when the fighting ended. They were his type of men.
Halsey did not choose the three destroyers based upon sentiment, however. He selected them because of the record they had amassed over the previous three years, and because in the bleak months of late 1942, when he most needed a weapon with which to stymie the Japanese in the Solomons, he turned to his destroyers.
O'Bannon, Nicholas, and Taylor were part of Destroyer Squadron 21 (Desron 21), the most acclaimed destroyer squadron of the war. Similar to an Army or Marine company, the squadron operated as a unit, in some ways a seagoing band of brothers. At times all of the squadron's destroyers barreled into action together, while on other occasions individual ships received separate missions, much as an infantry company dispatches smaller platoons on different assignments.
Desron 21 destroyers could be found with American forces as they steadily advanced up the Solomon Island chain, during the assaults against the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, along New Guinea's coast, into the Philippines, and north to Iwo Jima and Okinawa before participating in air and naval bombardments of the Japanese Home Islands. The squadron fought in major surface clashes and minor actions, conducted hundreds of patrols, escorted giant battleships and diminutive landing craft, scoured the ocean depths for enemy submarines, and scrutinized the skies for kamikazes. Foes charged the ships on, above, and below the surface. By appearing in almost every major assault of the Pacific war from 1942 to 1945, the squadron's exploits reflected the history of the Pacific clash itself.
Admiral Halsey wished to recognize those accomplishments by asking the three remaining operational ships of Desron 21 to lead the armada into Tokyo Bay. They had served under his command at Guadalcanal, and to the man the press called the "Bull" it seemed only fitting that they would accompany him at war's end.
"At daylight, there was my old ship, the Nicholas, getting under way," recalled Ensign Jack Fitch, subsequently on the Desron 21 staff, "honored to lead the entire armada, which stretched single file over the horizon into Tokyo Bay. It was and is the most spectacular sight I ever saw."2
In its three years of existence, Desron 21 earned three Presidential Unit Citations, one Navy Unit Commendation, and 118 battle stars—forty-eight by the trio that now steamed at Halsey's van, in front of the Missouri. The squadron had sunk or helped sink ten submarines and numerous surface vessels, shot down dozens of aircraft, and rescued more than eighteen hundred sailors and downed airmen, but it came with a high cost, as attested to in that only three of the twelve destroyers (counting replacements) remained to operate with Halsey and the three hundred Allied warships at war's end. Desron 21 ships were torpedoed three times, mined four times, and hit four times by shore batteries, suffering a total of 372 crewmembers killed and many more wounded.
While Desron 21's achievements were impressive, it was not a squadron of ships that registered an inspiring resume, but the people serving aboard those destroyers. Just as soldiers in an Army battalion seize a hill and Marines in a platoon storm a beach, the officers and sailors of Desron 21 issued the orders and manned the guns. They dropped depth charges and delivered shells to five-inch guns, downed enemy aircraft and rescued military brethren. They put their lives on the line not once or twice but day after day, and emerged victorious despite the worst that the Japanese could hurl at them. The united effort of career Navy officers and civilian enlisted, ship's doctors and gridiron heroes, swept the once victorious Japanese from their island bastions and rolled them back toward Tokyo. People, not metallic superstructures and hulls, won the battles.
Halsey selected the final three destroyers of Desron 21 because he knew that their endeavors epitomized all that was noble in the conflict. "The history of the Pacific war can never be written without telling the story of the U.S.S. O'Bannon [a key member of Desron 21]," wrote Admiral Halsey in the foreword to a book about the ship and unit. "Time after time the O'Bannon and her gallant little sisters were called upon to turn back the enemy. They never disappointed me. Out-numbered, out-gunned, during the dark days of '42 and '43 they stood toe-to-toe with the best the Japanese Fleet could offer—and never failed to send them scurrying home with their tails between their legs.
"No odds were ever too great for them to face," added Halsey. He said that their actions "derailed the Tokio Express so often that the Japanese admirals ran out of excuses. No medals, however high, can reward the gallant men of the tin-can fleet for their brave deeds. In her [the nation's] darkest hour their country called. They answered with flaming guns and high courage."3
So, too, did Donald MacDonald answer his nation's call.
THE DESTROYERS GO TO WAR
Like most young boys, Donald John MacDonald gave little thought to the military when he was growing up in DuBois, Pennsylvania. Born on July 25, 1908, MacDonald reaped the benefits of a well-to-do family. His father was a business executive who owned a lucrative list of properties, including coal mines and a hotel. His grandfather on the paternal side came to the United States from Inverness, Scotland, and his Scots-Irish maternal grandparents arrived in the heated years leading to the American Revolution. As a representative from New Hampshire, his great-great-uncle Josiah Bartlett signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, three names to the right of John Hancock and three names above John Adams.
At DuBois High School, MacDonald proved his prowess both on the athletic field and in the classroom, where he earned valedictorian honors as well as the distinction of being named class president. Since females found the combination of good looks, brains, and athletic acumen irresistible, the outgoing MacDonald never lacked for girlfriends.
In MacDonald's senior year, his father contacted a congressman and obtained an appointment for his son to the United States Naval Academy. Being more interested in sports and girls, and never having given the military serious thought, MacDonald took the exams without studying and failed the English portion. When the congressman promised to hold an appointment for him a year from then, MacDonald cracked the books.
He attended the Werntz Naval Academy Preparatory School in Annapolis, a highly regarded preparatory school for the Naval Academy operated by Bobby Werntz, a stern taskmaster. The discipline produced quick results, with MacDonald passing the next year's exams. He earned the congressman's appointment and, in 1927, entered the Naval Academy as a plebe.
Once accepted at Annapolis, the athletic MacDonald focused more on extracurricular activities than on classroom work. "I guess I never spent enough time reading books and so forth," he said. "I was always sort of out playing golf, tennis, and anything else."1 He lettered in soccer, but had enough natural intelligence to graduate eighty-fifth out of 441 graduates of the Class of 1931. Commissioned an ensign, MacDonald was assigned to destroyers, but he planned to remain in the Navy only until the economy, ravaged by the onset of the Great Depression, improved and allowed him to depart for a promising business opportunity.
After one month's leave, MacDonald joined his first ship, the USS Hulbert (DD-342), in San Diego. In no time the flustered young officer found himself in authority when the skipper, Lieutenant Commander Frederick D. "Pinky" Powers, handed MacDonald the first watch. "You know," barked Powers, "I don't want anyone on this ship who doesn't carry his own weight, so you're going to start standing watches right away."
Although MacDonald at times felt overwhelmed, he claimed that he benefited from Powers, whom he called "a pretty tough hombre." Powers put him in charge at a time when many of MacDonald's classmates wallowed at the bottom of the command chain. Instead, he began learning how to supervise men from his first hour aboard the destroyer. "This did really help me and gave me a great boost in connection with confidence."2
Two years later MacDonald reported to the battleship USS California (BB-44), where he gained additional experience by administering the junior officers' mess, commanding the Number Four gun turret, and serving as the catapult officer. This lasted until the fall of 1937, when he was assigned to the USS Salinas (AO-19), a Navy oil tanker whose job was to keep the shore-based oil farm tanks full for the Navy's ships and aircraft. The vessel operated along the East Coast, transporting oil from Houston refineries to a fuel farm.
Being a young, single naval officer had its benefits, and the handsome MacDonald took full advantage of the many opportunities for fun that a life of travel and glamour offered. He was comfortable in the presence of women, popular at parties, and conversant with dignitaries. "Life was very pleasant then for a naval officer. You were accepted wherever you went, not exactly always respected, but at least accepted. Naval officers were almost looked upon as catches for the daughters, because we had a little bit of stability and also independence."
The ship's base, Charleston, South Carolina, especially came alive during Christmas season. "I seemed to be very popular," he said. "I had a very hectic social schedule." He had just been advanced to lieutenant, junior grade, "and we were very much in demand by the parents of daughters they would like to see marry into the Navy at the time."3 Debutante balls and parties followed one after the other, with the fun-loving MacDonald on each list.
So far, MacDonald had been exposed to relatively routine matters, but that changed in April 1938 when he received orders to leave Salinas and report to Washington, D.C., to work in the Navy Department's coding room. For the first time in his young career, as an assistant communications officer for coding arrangements, MacDonald worked closely with the Office of Naval Intelligence and with top naval officials, including the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold R. Stark and his assistant, Rear Admiral Robert L. Ghormley.
It was heady company for an officer only a few years out of Annapolis, but his simultaneous duties as an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House were even more impressive. Roosevelt used MacDonald as a source of information for what came into the decoding room. If MacDonald read anything he judged important, especially pertaining to Great Britain's struggle with Germany after war in Europe flared in September 1939, he was to send it directly to Roosevelt.
MacDonald deciphered most of the messages darting back and forth from Winston Churchill to Roosevelt, many which related to the president's desire to help the British at a time when a majority of the people in the United States opposed intervention in what they considered a foreign war. MacDonald was authorized to phone the president directly, so that Roosevelt would have the information as soon as possible. Wherever MacDonald went in Washington, he had to leave his phone number in case an important message needed deciphering. Eleanor Roosevelt sometimes invited him and other aides to dine at the White House, where they engaged in friendly banter while enjoying a top-notch dinner. He once attended a banquet given on behalf of the king and queen of England, and at the request of the president or his wife often appeared at balls and dances hosted for Roosevelt nieces.
"It was a wonderful life. We were there so frequently that they almost got to know us like their own children. We were invited to lots of parties," he recalled. Long at ease in the presence of beautiful women, MacDonald, splendidly attired in his uniform, moved gracefully from guest to guest; "my social life was very busy in the evenings."4 He especially looked forward to the times when Colonel George S. Patton, the commanding officer at nearby Fort Myer, hosted an affair, more for the presence of Patton's daughters than the officer. In late summer of 1940 MacDonald jumped from the social pleasures of peacetime Washington, D.C., to the perils of wartime London when he crossed the Atlantic to be the assistant naval attaché and special naval observer under Ghormley, the naval attaché. He went from deciphering messages sent by a troubled Winston Churchill to the scene of the fighting those messages described, at a time when Churchill could not be certain his nation would withstand Hitler's assault. A German invasion seemed all too possible, and the German air arm blistered London and other British cities during the Blitz.
"Well, when we arrived there, England was in desperate straits, there's no doubt about it, and this was when Churchill came on the air with his 'blood, sweat, and tears' speech," said MacDonald. "We'd only been there about a week when he came on the air with that one. They were desperate. They had no way of defending themselves, really, because the military equipment, as far as the Army was concerned, was virtually all left on the beaches of Normandy in the Dunkirk arrangement. It was all left over there, so the only thing they had were the volunteers who were called up to bring their shotguns and a few things like that to stand by. England had a terrible time." He added, "The atmosphere at the time was that maybe England wouldn't be able to hold out, so we might not be over there too long."5
The group stayed at the Dorchester Hotel in a suite of rooms with two bedrooms on the top floor. When German aircraft lumbered toward the big city, rather than hasten to the basement shelters as guests were required to do, MacDonald and the other American military personnel scampered to the roof, where they observed German bombs set fire to warehouses and ships.
After one of the largest German raids, MacDonald visited the official in charge of the fire equipment in London. The man told MacDonald that his department faced nearly 2,500 fires burning at the same time all over London, and that it was impossible to extinguish them all. When MacDonald asked how he handled the situation, the official explained they had no choice but to let some burn themselves out so they could focus on the most threatening conflagrations. Under desperate circumstances the official and his crews assessed what they were able to do and then executed the tasks. MacDonald was impressed with this lesson in crisis management.
On another occasion Churchill invited Ghormley, MacDonald, and others to join him for an inspection trip to Dover. When they reached the port city, Churchill grabbed high-powered binoculars to gain a view of the German military installations on the other side of the Channel and noticed that the enemy was constructing additional gun emplacements. In a testy mood, Churchill asked the British commander at his side to fire a few rounds across the water, but the officer advised against it. He explained that they had done that before, but the Germans responded with ten times as many shells.
Having deciphered so many of Churchill's messages to Roosevelt, MacDonald was hardly stunned when the British leader nevertheless ordered a shot fired, nor was he surprised when the Germans indeed sent back ten times as many. MacDonald saw why so many Britons rallied to Churchill's side: their leader never shrank from the aggressive course. No matter how desperate the situation—and things certainly favored the Germans at this stage of the conflict—Churchill acted with composure and optimism. MacDonald admired that quality and made a mental note of it for the day when he commanded men in battle.
Even more, he admired the resolve displayed by London's citizenry. Each day men and women left their homes, many residences showing signs of recent bombings, and traipsed to work. Fathers and mothers shook off the numbness that came from bomb-interrupted sleep or from hours spent in bomb shelters, and commenced daily schedules that had long structured their lives. Despite the dangers that had become an all too familiar part of their routines, children attended school and played with neighborhood friends. Almost daily, MacDonald observed examples, not from statesmen or admirals but from men and women, boys and girls, of how to endure under stress.
"The people over here are standing up remarkably well," he wrote his parents in February 1941. "The morale is still very high. They are quite confident that they will win."6 Their example profoundly influenced him when he later faced trying situations against Japanese firepower.
MacDonald would have to put those lessons to the test sooner than he assumed. During a visit to friends in the English countryside on December 7, 1941, MacDonald listened to a radio broadcast announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He immediately departed for London, where he found Ghormley in his office trying to obtain additional information.
When a telegram shortly after the Japanese attack informed him that his father was seriously ill, in February 1942 MacDonald boarded an aircraft and arrived home in time to visit his father before he succumbed. After the funeral, the young officer contacted people in the Navy to seek a seagoing command. With the mad naval expansion then in place, both in ships and in men, it was not long before he was named the executive officer, the second-in-command, of the destroyer USS O'Bannon, the second of the Fletcher-class destroyers then being constructed at Bath, Maine.
Lieutenant Commander Donald MacDonald was off to war.
"The Deadliest Killer in the Fleet for Her Size"
Navy men have long been charmed by destroyers. Admiral Halsey claimed he owed much of his success to his destroyer commands between the wars, mainly because, like the man, the ships carried a reputation for aggressiveness and action. Although he eventually directed massive task forces consisting of aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers, Halsey never lost his fondness for the smaller destroyers.
The craft were originally created in the late nineteenth century to combat torpedo boats, which then wreaked havoc with ships. They slowly transformed into the offensive tool the hard-hitting admiral so loved, first by adding self-propelled torpedoes, which could be launched against surface ships, and then by carrying depth charges, to dispatch submarines during World War I. When aerial threats became more prevalent as the world wound its way toward war in 1939, destroyers enhanced their arsenal with antiaircraft batteries. Originally assigned one task, by World War II destroyers had morphed into multipurpose warships that could attack or defend.
MacDonald was fortunate to join one of the sleek, new Fletcher-class destroyers just then bursting out of American shipyards. Fletcher-class destroyers played a crucial role early in the Pacific war because when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the famed naval architectural firm Gibbs and Cox had already crafted their designs; faced with the instant need for more ships, the Navy turned to those destroyers. Ten were commissioned within nine months, with nineteen more ordered, and a total of 175 left shipyards during the conflict, more than any other class of destroyers. The ships formed the foundation for what would later become Destroyer Squadron 21.
At 376 feet long—the length of almost one and a third football fields—and forty feet across at the widest, the ships were known for speed and offensive wallop. Two turbine engines propelled the ship at top speeds approaching thirty-seven knots (42.6 miles per hour). While the thin-skinned vessels could be vulnerable to bombs and shells, the real value of the Fletcher
- "Wukovits certainly joins [Samuel Eliot] Morrison and James D. Hornfischer as one of the pre-eminent writers on the history of U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific theater...Thanks should go not only to those veterans who want their story told before they're gone but as well to those like John Wukovits who do the telling in a well presented and poignantly human written manner."—New York Journal of Books
- "Authors such as John Wukovits do all of us a great service by researching the lives of ships and sailors, and putting these stirring tales before a public often far too ignorant of their heritage...A well-researched, well-written and well-edited book, sure to stir the imaginations of many veterans, and well worth the time of adventure-loving civilians." —Roanoke Times
- "The strength of Tin Can Titans is that Mr. Wukovits has ferreted out deeply personal stories of the officers and enlisted men who experienced hell aboard these destroyers. Their diaries, letters and personal reminiscences, as well as the action reports from their commanders, convey the horrors of pitching decks, exploding shrapnel and gut-wrenching fear." —Walter Borneman, Wall Street Journal
- "An inspiring story of courage, duty, sacrifice, and devotion to country in the most trying and dangerous of circumstances. It's an epic story about decisive actions in a large Pacific war. But it's mostly a story about American sailors at war...most of them civilians who donned uniforms for the duration when their country needed them, and who went back, those who survived, to their civilian lives when the shooting stopped...Destroyers were workhorses in the Pacific, and elsewhere. It's right that their story is told too, as it is so well in Tin Can Titans. These are ships and Americans that should not be forgotten."—The American Spectator
- "[Wukovits] draws overdue attention to the heroism, dedication, and courage of the young destroyer sailors...[He] does a masterful job capturing the day-to-day boredom, excitement, and fear ordinary tin can sailors experienced on routine patrols at the height of the Pacific war. He expertly weaves together monthly war diaries, action reports, and ships' histories, as well as interviews and oral histories from the officers and sailors that lived, fought, and often died together...Wukovits makes no claim that DesRon 21 single-handedly won the war, but he gives the men that fought in the squadron their due."—America in WWII
"Tin Can Titans is history with humanity, and should be of interest to any current student of Americana, and to any of the fading generations who still have close ties to our last great war."
—Curled Up with a Good Book
- "A story of valor, sacrifice, and endurance and one that is well told...The author is a well-known military historian with vast experience on the Pacific war, and this expertise shines through in his latest book...The clear writing and thorough research combine to make a readable and enjoyable volume."—WWII History
- "[Wukovits] interviewed former squadron members and mined the letters and diaries of the crews to present the Pacific War through their eyes."—Seapower
- "A lively and briskly written account of destroyer squadron operations...Anyone interested in destroyer operations in general or those of the USN in particular will find this title worth consideration."—Warship International
"An excellent narrative of the blue-collar destroyers...Wukovits keeps the reader engaged with interesting stories and nonstop action."
"Using many primary sources as well as interviews with surviving destroyer crewmen, the author strips away the idealized image of serving aboard destroyers during the most intense naval war in history...A remarkable example of popular naval history...Tin Can Titans belongs on the bookshelf of every general or specialist reader interested in the Pacific War."
—Michigan War Studies Review
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Da Capo Press